Ministerial changes Speech in the Scottish Parliament 12 February 2009

One of the few pleasures of being in opposition is spectating as the Government party experiences a reshuffle and watching its impact on the selected individuals who have lost their jobs, on those who have gained the exciting opportunity that ministerial office presents and, of course, on those who have doggedly sought preferment but been disappointed.
Perhaps next time.
I should predicate my comments by saying that it is a great privilege to be in ministerial office.
I wish those who are departing office well and send every good wish to those who are going into office, which is a privilege to which we all aspire.
As ever, the First Minister's cohorts have been spinning fit to burst but, even by the First Minister's standards, the spin has stretched credibility to breaking point.
First, we are told that Mike Russell is to be responsible for the national conversation.
That responsibility is to be given to a man who has shown no evidence whatever throughout his parliamentary career that he understands that conversation includes people other than himself speaking and that it might possibly involve listening rather than lecturing.
Secondly, we are told that Alex Neil represents fresh talent and that he is a critic being brought into the fold.
With all due respect, I go back a long way with Alex Neil—so far that I can remember when he believed that social justice should be at the centre of Government policy, not in the margins where Mr Salmond's trickle-down economics place it—but not even he, who has shown a remarkable ability to argue for anything in the past year and a half, could possibly characterise himself as a fresh face.
I can only hazard a guess at how those SNP members whose faces are a deal fresher than mine or Mr Neil's feel about that.
I considered for a moment the possibility that, in this Parliament of minorities, we should all be allowed to choose an SNP back bencher to be given the job—perhaps someone who has displayed a scintilla of independent thought—but even I, optimistic soul that I am, recognise a tough job when I see one.
In the unreal world that is the Parliament, where the first rule should always be to expect the unexpected, the transformation of Alex Neil, the alleged critic, from thorn in the flesh to Salmond's little helper has been breathtaking.
Week after week, we have witnessed him in full flow, shouting, bawling and crawling in equal measure.
The reality of course is that the loyalty of the back benchers has been bought by the promise of the one thing that unites them—a Government that is focused entirely on seeking constitutional fights as a means of separating us from the rest of the United Kingdom.
That is the key message of the ministerial and other decisions that Mr Salmond has made this week: separation is now everything.
Ministers who are departing office should not blame themselves or allow themselves to be joined to the long list of alibis that the First Minister uses at every opportunity.
They could work only with the cards that they were dealt.
The Government has failed in its housing policy, which prompted the lobbying today by trade unionists, housing organisations and community volunteers; in its environmental policy, which seeks to privatise our forests, as a result of listening to Rothschild rather than rural workers; in its culture policy, which prompted unprecedented unity of artists in protest; and its schools policy, which—remarkably—has not resulted in the building of one school being commissioned in nearly two years.
I welcome the new ministers to their posts and urge them to do in government what they did not do on the back benches—to speak up.
I urge them to do what their boss regularly fails to do—to listen to those who live with the consequences of the misguided action in their ministerial portfolios and the wilful lack of action by the Government on the economy.
If the new ministers do that, perhaps the First Minister's failed policies might be challenged.
Labour members understand that the critical issue is that the Government should work in the interests of the people of Scotland.
All the reshuffles in the world will not make the difference that we need, which would come from the First Minister, the Cabinet, ministers and the governing party putting aside their constitutional obsessions and using their existing powers to support families and communities throughout Scotland.
If the ministerial change brings about such a change, that will be welcome.

Housing Speech in the Scottish Parliament 12 February 2009

It is important for members to discuss housing and to end the Government's obsession with assertion over action.
If ever there was an example of government by alibi, it was Nicola Sturgeon's speech.
She talked about what everybody else's responsibilities are and wilfully refused to reflect on her own policy, "Firm Foundations".
I hope that she listened to what Ross Finnie said about the six council houses, particularly as her Government has emphasised the continuing and critical role of housing associations in its policy.
The power of the threat of a Labour debate on housing is remarkable: there has been half a U-turn on a key policy on HAG spending.
Given the absolute certainty about previous HAG assumptions, perhaps the minister could clarify what consultation took place with the housing sector on the new assumptions.
I fear that they may have been plucked out of the air in a panic. Two Mondays ago, the then housing minister, Stewart Maxwell—to whom I pay tribute; I have enjoyed debating with him—stated that the grant formula was costing housing associations an extra £10,000 per house, but that that could be tackled by using reserves or borrowing.
Four days later, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing announced that the issue was being revisited.
Poor Mr Maxwell.
He gallantly defended the Scottish National Party's policy while both the policy's demise and his own were being plotted.
The Parliament has already agreed that the Scottish Government's housing policy is seriously flawed.
Despite that, the Scottish Government persists with it.
Cuts in HAG levels will lead to rent increases or increased borrowing at the worst possible time, and the introduction of a lead developer model can be seen as undermining entirely the critical role of community-based housing associations.
Are we to assume that the cabinet secretary, in supporting our motion and agreeing that there should be flexibility on procurement, is finally burying the lead developer role?
Will she confirm that, given the GHA's role as a transitional body, its aspiration to be a lead developer will simply not be allowed to be fulfilled?
The problem with the firm foundations approach is that if the Scottish Government persists with it, it will seriously undermine the role of community-controlled housing associations.
The approach is predicated on an assumption that housing associations have been feather-bedded in some ways. Reserves are talked about, but the reality is that they are used to plan not two years ahead, but five, 10, 15 and 20 years in advance.
The very thing that sustained housing associations at a time when council houses were falling into disrepair because they had been starved of investment is now being used inappropriately.
There is talk of economies of scale.
We know the pressures of diseconomies of scale.
A big organisation spends without thinking.
We need to reassert the importance of housing associations in community regeneration and in sustaining local communities.
The Scottish Government must listen to those who tell it that such an approach will strengthen the role of the national housing associations at the expense of local housing associations.
The cabinet secretary must back off.
In particular, in summing up, she should address a key point about the implications of the lead developer role that has been raised with me.
The lead developer proposals would not allow charities—which the vast majority of the housing associations are—to undertake such a role.
Things would need to be changed to allow subsidiaries to do that.
Subsidiaries will not be registered social landlords, so they will not be able to receive HAG, which will then go to end users.
The reason for the proposal in the first place—to give all the resources to a one-stop shop of regional experts—would be undermined, European procurement rules would apply to the procurement of the lead developer and things would have to be opened up to the private sector.
Surely that is not the Government's intention.
We should apply the Swinney test to that policy, bearing it in mind that destroying community-controlled housing associations was not in the SNP's manifesto.
The Parliament has voted against the policy and times have changed.
The worrying conclusion that we have to draw is that the reason why we shall not get the cabinet secretary to admit that she is wrong—and she is—and the reason why she will not dump the policy along with the local income tax, is that it does not require parliamentary endorsement.
The Scottish Government will persist with the policy not because it is right, but because it can.
That is the approach of the pre-1999 Scottish Office and its administrative devolution for ministers, rather than that of a Scottish Government that is accountable to Parliament and, through it, to all those who are highly exercised and concerned about the current approach.
We all agree that we are in challenging, fast-changing and difficult times, but the test of Government is whether it makes the situation better or worse.
This Scottish Government currently fails that test in relation to housing and the sustainability of social rented housing at community level.
It is time for the cabinet secretary to recognise that graciously, think again, dump the "Firm Foundations" document and policy—which the Parliament has opposed—and work with housing associations, MSPs and those in the housing sector to develop a housing policy that will make a difference to our communities.

Human Trafficking Speech in the Scottish Parliament 05 February 2009

I begin by acknowledging the contribution of the Presiding Officer, Trish Godman, to ensuring that the subject has remained a political issue.
I appreciate that she is not in a position just now to express her views, but her record is there to be recognised.
I congratulate Murdo Fraser on bringing the debate to the chamber.
The importance of the motion lies in the fact that it not only describes something terrible but considers ways in which we can address the issues.
When I read the motion and became aware of the issues, the capacity of some people for cruelty and the willingness to perpetrate that cruelty against other human beings took my breath away.
The danger is that, in being appalled, we are also paralysed and fear that we can do nothing to address that level of cruelty.
If we do not act, however, we give up on so many people who are facing problems.
We have a responsibility to act.
One reason why I welcome the debate is that it enables us to consider how we can support action to address the problem.
It is clear that the issue is not particularly about women, but it is disproportionately experienced by women.
It is therefore important to make the connection with the abuse of women, male violence against women and the unequal status of women in this country and elsewhere.
I believe that those factors play a part in ensuring that it is disproportionately women who suffer from being trafficked and abused by men.
It is critical that we support the organisations and groups that reach out to vulnerable people, who might be fearful of speaking out and do not know where to go.
It is essential that we use the networks within communities to give people the confidence to speak out.
That is true domestically just as it is true for those who are trafficked into the country.
We also need to challenge the perpetrators—not just those who traffic, but those who go and use and abuse trafficked women
The Women's Support Project in Glasgow has done some significant research on the attitudes of men who use prostitutes.
One of its stunning findings was that, although a significant number of the men suspected that women were there through no choice of their own, that they had been forced to be there and that they may have been trafficked, that bore no relationship to whether the men would use those women.
The notion that prostitution is a fair transaction between men and women is exposed by that.
The men knew that the women could have been victims of trafficking, but that made no difference to whether they chose to continue.
We heard about Germany.
Why was there a demand for prostitutes there?
Who would use them?
I know that Trish Godman has made representations to Glasgow City Council about the Commonwealth games and the need to challenge attitudes there.
It is critical that we put the matter in context and address the question of the perpetrators.
As has been suggested, legislation might need to be developed on the Swedish model, but the Scottish Parliament passed relevant legislation before the 2007 election, and that legislation needs to be enforced, because it focuses on the perpetrators and puts the matter in that context.
I remind the minister that, although local authorities operate under financial constraints, there are soft budget lines, and those are the lines that should support groups that go out and support women.
However, there is nobody to speak up for that in the hard battle of financial choices.
I hope that the minister will address that problem.
We need education in our communities.
We need to talk about what is happening and the connection with violence against women.
We need to protect those who have been trafficked, and we need to ensure that the focus on perpetrators is not lost. People are appalled by the notion of trafficking.
That is straightforward, but it is more difficult to consider what creates the demand.
The minister will have the support of all members if he is willing to address that.
We should examine the legislative measures that are in place, consider how well they are working and encourage further enforcement of them, because they shift the balance from those who allegedly make the choice to go into prostitution to those who create the demand in the first place and continue to use prostitutes despite the evidence, which is visible to them, that some of the most vulnerable people have been placed there for abuse through no choice of their own.